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For the past few evenings, my parents’ patio has been visited by a hedgehog, who appears quite brazenly from out of the undergrowth to feed at the birds’ ground table!
Enticed back night after night with the promise of scraps of corned beef, he has grown increasingly comfortable with us watching him. A patch of white spines on his back has made him quite recognisable, and we’ve named him Beefy, on account of his favourite snack (not to mention his hefty size)!
These nightly visits got me thinking of what folklore there might be surrounding this little creature. Read below to learn more about them.
Hedgehogs are an incredibly old species, having changed very little over the last 15 million years. They are adapted for survival: their nocturnal nature allows them to forage when many predators are inactive; their omnivorous diet expands their food sources; and their spines, as well as being a defence mechanism, can be anointed with the smells of their territory to camouflage them as they hunt. Hedgehogs exist in five species, spread throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, so it is not surprising that they appear in the beliefs and folklore of many cultures.
Some of the best lore surrounding hedgehogs comes from ancient civilisations. In ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote that hedgehogs could foretell changes in the direction of the wind, and would create new entrances to their burrows accordingly. Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, wrote that hedgehogs collect fallen fruit on their spines, before carrying it back to their winter store. These associations have trickled down through different cultures and beliefs, and the hedgehog has always been presented as knowledgeable and industrious. Some tales even suggest that hedgehog visited early humans, giving them the gift of fire and teaching them how to plough. Tying into this notion of knowledge, hedgehogs often appear in fairy tales as animal guides, or bestowers of wisdom.
In ancient Egypt, hedgehogs were deemed sacred as their act of hibernation was seen to align with the notion of rebirth, or reincarnation. The likeness of hedgehogs can be found in ancient Egyptian beads and amulets. As well as the ability to seemingly rise from the dead when winter was over, hedgehogs were also thought to have an immunity to snake bites.
While most of the beliefs listed above are fiction, it is easy to see where they come from. Though they cannot predict the weather, hedgehogs do live life by the seasons, hibernating when the temperatures change. When they hibernate, they rely on accumulated fat reserves rather than food stores, (rather sadly) disproving Pliny’s idea! However, he might have seen hedgehogs anointing themselves with the juice of apples or other fruit, either as camouflage or a natural bug repellent. Being presented as the bringers of wisdom (and sometimes literally, light) to those in the dark, may be inspired by the ease at which they navigate during the night.
Oddly, of all these beliefs, the immunity to snake bites actually holds the most truth! Due to the presence of the protein erinacin in their bodies, they can survive the bites of less poisonous snakes. It is perhaps because of this that Romani traveller communities used to think that eating hedgehog meat prevented poisoning. Not only poisoning: but baldness (maybe their abundant spikes gave the impression of hair growth), blindness (perhaps connected to their noctural navigation), leprosy, and even evil spells.
In Irish lore, hedgehogs were thought to be evidence of evil spellwork themselves. Believed to be a witches in disguise, they were even hunted in accordance with early modern witch hunts, with a bounty placed on them during 1566. Witchcraft trials were at their height in England at the time Shakespeare was writing his plays, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that in his writings, hedgehogs bear connotations of malevolence and ill-will. Richard III is likened to a hedgehog, perhaps due to his barbed personality; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies bid: ‘Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen […] Come not near our fairy queen’, due to their discomforting barbs. They are conjured to torment Caliban in The Tempest, who complains: ‘hedgehogs which / Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount / Their pricks at my footfall’. Along with cats, bats, and all manner of creatures associated with witchcraft, they are also listed in the chant of the witches in Macbeth.
Witches were thought to transform into hedgehogs in order to suckle the milk from cows’ udders. This fed into the popular belief that hedgehogs favour milk, leading many people, even today, to leave out dishes to entice them in. In fact, hedgehogs are intolerant to lactose, and should not be given dairy products. Our Beefy will have to stick to dog kibble, after all!
Here are some great hedgehog and animal folklore related resources:
- Grace The Hedgehog
- Hedgehog Street
- Shepreth Wildlife Conservation Charity
- The British Hedgehog Preservation Society
- Animal Folklore
- Myth & Moor
- Shakespeare & Beyond
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