By Peter Y. Chou
Preface: After writing the poem “First Poem in Paris” about Rilke’s “The Panther” (1902) and the film Cat People (1942), I began reading more about Rilke’s time in Paris with Rodin and the influence of the sculptor on his poetry. I also consulted books and the web on the symbolism and the mythology of the panther. Here are my notes on this creature in myth as well as in the Bible and Dante’s Inferno. While the image of the panther strikes fear as a ferocious beast, it is interesting that many positive symbolisms are associated with the panther. During Medieval times, the panther typifies Christ, who stays in the cave for three days, emerging from the darkness with a sweet breath. The ancient Greeks believed the panther was one of the favored mounts of the god Dionysus. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Pepi pass through the ceiling of heaven with his panther skin upon him. Thus the panther signifies the overcoming of the lower earthly desires. The Native Americans regard the panther as the Protector of the universe. It is interesting that Rilke selected this powerful totem, the panther at the Paris Zoo, for his object of contemplation
Panther: Christian: The panther was said to save people from the dragon or Evil One.
As supposed to have sweet breath, it typified the sweet influence of Christ.
Heraldic: The panther is usually incensed and signifies fiercesness;
fury; impetuosity; remorselessness.
— J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, p. 126
Panther: The panther (or leopard) was a totemic symbol of Dionysis, whose priests wore panther-skins. Its name in Greek meant “All-beast” referring to the god as “the All” which was also another beast version of divinity, Pan.
Panthers were much admired in Rome, and were imported from Africa for public
displays and games in the arena.
— Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1988, p. 385 Panther Skin: A symbol signifying the overcoming of the lower desires.
“The iron which is the ceiling of heaven opens itself before Pepi, and he passes through it with his panther skin upon him, and his staff and whip in his hand.”
— E.A. Wallis Budge, Book of the Dead, Vol. I, p. lxiii.
The higher mind, which is the firmament below the buddhic plane, is receptive
of the consciousness of the purified soul which has overcome the desires,
and actively aspires to that which is above.
— G. A. Gaskell, The Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myth,
Avenel Books, NY, 1981 (original: Julian Press, 1960), p. 559
Panther: Legendary Creature
A Panther is a creature out of ancient myth that resembles a big cat with a multicoloured hide. Under medieval belief after feasting the panther will sleep in a cave for a total of three days. After this period ends, the panther roars, in the process emiting a sweet smelling odour. This odour draws in any creatures who smell it (the dragon being the only creature immune) and the cycle begins again. The ancient Greeks believed the panther was one of the favored mounts of the god Dionysus. Other names for this creature are pantera, pantere, and love cervere. In Germany, the panther is often depicted in heraldry as a creature with four horns, cow’s ears and a fiery red tongue. The coat-of-arms of the city of Cres, Croatia shows a panther with a fiery tongue. This form is known as the Panther Incensed with flames coming from its mouth and ears, representing the panther’s sweet odour. This form was most notably used by King Henry VI as his badge and by other members of the House of Lancaster. The Heraldry from Raglan Castle, England featuring an example of a non-feline panther is shown at left.
As to Indian myth, which most of the totems are taken from, Panther is feared and respected, and in some is regarded as the Protector of the universe. The Zuni believed that he ancient ones wanted the world to be guarded by those keen of sight and scent. The puma (the greatest of them) was the sentinel of the north (the most important position). The Miwoks believed him to be the ideal hunter, while the Apaches and Hualapais thought her wailing was the omen of death. In Navajo myth a hero was wounded by witch objects shot into his body. Puma extracts them and save his life. They also thought that the Puma benefited them by leaving the better part of the portion of its kill for the people to eat. Conversely the Papago and the later white settlers considered the cougar a flesh eating beast. The Inca hunted many animals in great round-ups where they would hunt the hunter. They found it much easier to catch bear and deer in the rounds-ups then panthers. To many Indian societies it was both a Totem and a source of help for hunting and warfare. In fact the Hopi and Zuni took carved mountain lions when hunting deer in hopes that they would be as good at it as the mountain lion was. In many cultures the puma was often deified for its ability to hunt.
Panther as a Totem
The panther is a very powerful and ancient totem. It is generally associated with a particular species of leopard or jaguar although the cougar is also referred to as panther. As with most of the large cats, the panther is a symbol of ferocity and valor. It embodies aggressiveness and power, but without the solar significance. In the case of the Black Panther, there is definitely a lunar significance. The panther has over 500 voluntary muscles that they can use at will. This reflects a lot about an individual who has such animals as totems. It reflects an ability to do a variety of tasks as he or she wills. It is simply a matter of deciding and putting to use those particular “muscles” – be they physical, mental, psychic, or spiritual. As a whole panthers are loners (solitary) although they do associate with others, they are most comfortable by themselves or within their own marked territory. They are drawn to those individuals who are likewise often solitary.
Of all the panthers, probably the Black Panther has the greatest mysticism associated with it. It is the symbol of the feminine, the dark mother, the dark of the moon. It is the symbol for the life and power of the night. It is a symbol of the feminine energies manifest upon the earth. It is often a symbol of darkness, death, and rebirth from out of it. There still exists in humanity a primitive fear of the dark and of death. The Black Panther helps us to understand the dark and death and the inherent powers of them; and thus by acknowledging them, eliminate our fears and learn to use the powers.
In China there were five mythic cats, sometimes painted like tigers or leopards. The black reigns in the north with winter as its season of power, and water it’s most effective element. This is the element of the feminine. This is the totem of greater assertion of feminine in all her aspects: child, virgin, seductress, mother, warrioress, seeress, old wise woman.
When the Black Panther enters your life as a totem, it awakens the inner passions. This can manifest in unbridled expressions of baser powers and instincts. It can also reflect an awakening of the kundalini, signaling a time of not just coming into one’s own power. More so, the keynote of the Black Panther is Reclaiming One’s True Power. In mythology and scripture, the panther has been a symbol of the “Argos of a Thousand Eyes,” who guarded the heifer Io who was loved by Zeus. After his death, the eyes were transferred to the feathers of the peacock. The panther always brings a guardian energy to those to whom it comes.
The panther has also been attributed to Jesus. In the Abodazara (early Jewish commentaries on the scriptures), it is listed as a surname for the family of Joseph. It tells how a man was healed “in the name of Jesus ben Panther.” Because of this the panther often signals a time of rebirth after a period of suffering and death on some level. This implies that an old issue may finally begin to be resolved, or even that old longstanding wounds will finally begin to heal, and with the healing will come a reclaiming of power that was lost at the time of wounding.
In the myths and stories of Dionysus the panther is a symbol of unleashing desires, and thus the awakening of the kundalini forces. The panther symbolizes a time of moving from mere poles of existence to a new life without poles or barriers. The panther in a Dionysic manner awakens the unconscious urges and abilities that have been closed down. It signals a time of imminent awakening.
To the Indians of North and South America, the jaguar especially in the form of the Black Panther – was endowed with great magic and power. The jaguar panther climbs, runs, and swims— even better than the tiger. Because it could function so well in so many areas, it became the symbol of mastery over all dimensions. To the Tucano Indians of the Amazon, the roar of the jaguar was the roar of thunder. Thus the Black Panther was the god of darkness and could cause eclipses by swallowing the sun. This reflects the tremendous power inherent within the feminine forces. To those with the panther as a totem, this power will increasingly be experienced. The Arawak Indians say that everything has jaguar. Nothing exists without it. It is the tie to all life and all manifestations of life (thus ties to the eternal feminine within all life). To them, becoming the man-jaguar was the ultimate shapeshifting ritual. The Olmecs created monuments to the jaguar, and the Aztecs and Mayans spoke and taught about the power in becoming half-human and half-jaguar. One who can become a jaguar is shorn of all cultural restrictions. The alter ego is free to act out desires, fears, aspirations. The Indian shamans would perform rituals to borrow jaguar power. One who could do such could do great good or great ill.
Nietzsche once said that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” It is this same idea that is awakened in the lives of those who open to the power of the panther totem. Those things of childhood and beyond that created suffering and which caused a loss of innate power and creativity are about to be reawakened, confronted and transmuted. The panther marks a new turn in the heroic path of those to whom it comes. It truly reflects more than just coming into one’s own power. Rather it reflects a reclaiming of that which was lost and an intimate connection with the great archetypal force behind it. It gives an ability to go beyond what has been imagined, with opportunity to do so with discipline and control. It is the spirit of imminent rebirth.”
(Ted Andrews, “Animal Speak”: http://www.greatdreams.com/panther.htm)
General: Animal species; Pink Panther films; Mac OSX v10.3 code name; Panther motorcycle, Panther Westwinds car. Politics: Black Panther Party; Gray Panthers; White Panther Party; Israeli Black Panthers. Military: Panther tank; F9F Panther; Panther Command; German gunboat; Eurocopter Panther. Pro Sports: Florida Panthers, Carolina Panthers, Pernrith Panthers; Michigan Panthers; Nottingham Panthers. College Sports: Pittsburgh Panthers; Northern Iowa Panthers; Georgia State Panthers; Plymouth State Panthers. Geography: Panther, Iowa; Panther, Kentucky; Panther, Nevada; Panther, Oklahoma; Panther, Pennsylvania; Panther, West Virginia. Media: Panther 1995 film; Panther publishing house; Panther rock band from Brooklyn, New York. Video Games: Panther, a tank simulator by John Edo Daefell in the late 1970s.
The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the four ‘big cats’ of the genus Panthera. Originally, it was thought that a leopard was a hybrid between a lion and a panther, and the leopard’s common name derives from this belief; leo is the Greek and Latin word for lion (Greek leon) and pard is an old term meaning panther. In fact, a “panther” can be any of several species of large felid. In North America, panther means Cougar and in South America a panther is a jaguar. Elsewhere in the world a panther is a leopard. Early naturalists distinguished between leopards and panthers not by colour (a common misconception), but by the length of the tail— panthers having longer tails than leopards.
The Cougar (Puma concolor), also known as the Puma or Mountain Lion, is a large, solitary cat found in the Americas. It has a vast range, from Yukon Territory in Canada to the southern Andes of South America. Its primary food is deer but it hunts a range of prey, from insects, mice and rabbits to the Domestic Cat, the Domestic Dog, the Alpaca, livestock, and even the Bighorn Sheep and the Elk, and sometimes in the Rocky Mountains kills mature cattle and horses. It is a secretive cat that usually avoids people; it will attack humans, though rarely. In the English language the Cougar has over 40 different names. Cougars are known by many regional names, including Panther, Catamount, Painter, American Lion, Mexican Lion, Florida Panther, Silver Lion, Red Lion, Red Panther, Red Tiger, Brown Tiger, Deer Tiger, Ghost Cat, Mountain Screamer, Indian Devil, Sneak Cat, King Cat, and Painted Cat. The word Puma comes from the Quechua language. In Brazil it is also known as the Suçuarana, from the Tupi language, but also has other names.
The Jaguarundi (Puma yaguarondi) is a medium-sized Central and South American wild cat: average length 65 cm (30 inches) with 45 cm (20 in) of tail. It has short legs and an appearance somewhat like an otter; the ears are short and rounded. The coat is unspotted, uniform in color, and varying from blackish to brownish gray (gray phase) or from foxy red to chestnut (red phase). The two color phases were once thought to represent two distinct species; the gray one called “Jaguarundi”, and the red one called “Eyra”. However, these are the same species and both color phases may be found in the same litter. Its coat has no markings except for spots at birth. This cat is closely related to the Cougar as evident by its similar genetic structure and chromosome count; both species are in the genus Puma although it is sometimes classified under a separate genus, Herpailurus and until recently, both cats were classified under the genus Felis. In some Spanish speaking countries, the Jaguarundi is also called “Leoncillo”, which means “little lion”. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguarundi)
The Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) is a critically endangered subspecies of Puma that lives in the low pinelands, palm forests and swamps of southern Florida in the United States, within a range that includes the Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. This Cougar, the only Puma representative in the eastern United States, currently occupies only 5% of its historic range. There are fewer than 70 breeding individuals, with a total population of 87. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_Panther)
Bible Citations: Leopard (6), Leopards (2)
And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were
as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and
the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.
— Revelations, XIII.2
Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the
evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities:
every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their
transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased.
— Jeremiah, V.6
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
— Isaiah, XI.6
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?
then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
— Jeremiah, XIII.23
After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it
four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.
— Daniel, VII.6
Therefore I will be unto them as a lion: as a leopard by the way will I observe them:
— Hosea, XIII.7
Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana,
from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions’ dens, from the mountains of the leopards.
— Song of Solomon, IV.8
Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the
evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen
shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat.
— Habakkuk, I.8
Citations in Dante’s Inferno
Canto I of Dante’s Inferno (Dante is impeded by the three beasts):
Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l’erta,
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta;
e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,
anzi ‘mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
ch’i’ fui per ritornar più volte vòòto.
And almost where the hillside starts to rise—
look there!— a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.
— Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Inferno, I.31-36
(Allen Mandelbaum translation, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984)
Commentary on Dante’s Inferno Beasts
The Three Beasts: These three beasts undoubtedly are taken from Jeremiah V.6. Many additional and incidental interpretations have been advanced for them, but the cental interpretation must remain as noted. They foreshadow the three divisions of Hell (incontinence, violence, and fraud) which Virgil explains at length in Inferno XI.16-111.
— John Ciardi (tr.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Norton, New York, 1977, p. 6 (Notes)
una lonza: Old French lonce. This animal is mentioned in the medieval bestiaries. The description in the Bestiario toscano indicates a rather special animal: “The loncia or lonza is a vicious, ferocious animal, born of the carnal union of a lion with a leopardess or of a leopard with a lioness.” Some insist that the lonza is the femal of the pardus, an identification that fits the requirements of Jeremiah V.6 Benvenuto says: “This Florentine word lonza seems to signify the leopardess, rather than any other wild beast.” And Buti mentions “the lonza, which is the female of that animal called the leopard”.
— Charles Singleton (tr.) , Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy: Inferno 2. Commentary
Bollingen Series LXXX, Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 10-11