Cultural depictions of weasels
Weasels are mammals belonging to the family Mustelidae and the genus Mustela, which includes stoats, least weasels, ferrets, and minks, among others. Different species of weasel have lived alongside humans on every continent except Antarctica and Australia, and have been assigned a wide range of folkloric and mythical meanings.
Excavations in Çatalhöyük, the earliest known agricultural settlement in Turkey (dating to 7000-6000 BC), uncovered animal parts which were incorporated into the structure of homes in what may have been a ritual practice. The teeth of weasels, alongside the teeth of foxes, tusks of wild boars, the claws of bears, and vulture beaks, were found embedded in plaster wall decorations.
Greece and Rome
Weasels were likely seen as pests in Ancient Greece and Rome. There are more modern claims that the Ancient Greeks and Romans kept weasels as house pets, but they are unsupported by historical sources. Plutarch and Cicero both refer to weasels as household pests in their writing.
They were also thought to have anti-venom properties: Pliny the Elder details a recipe for an antidote for asp venom made from crushed weasels, and writes about a least weasel slaying a basilisk in his Natural History:
To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.
The Kamaitachi (鎌鼬) is a Japanese yōkai that is said to take the form of a weasel who either has sharp nails or sickles in place of paws.
In Tōhoku, injuries received from a kamaitachi can be healed by burning an old calendar and putting it on the wound. In Shin'etsu, there is a folk belief that one could encounter a kamaitaichi by stepping on a calendar. The wounds received from a kamaitachi do not bleed or cause pain, but are deep.
There are variations on the myth and the appearance of the kamaitachi, but nearly all involve strong winds causing cuts to appear on people. The version in which the yōkai appears as a weasel describes it as having the bristles of a hedgehog, cry of a dog, and sickles for limbs.
In China, it is considered bad luck to kill a weasel, as they're said to be wandering spirits (shen) that can steal and replace people's souls; killing them brings bad luck or death on the killer and their family.
The ermine was seen as a symbol of purity, for the belief that it would rather die than dirty its white fur: if hunters were chasing it, it would supposedly turn around and surrender rather than risk soiling itself. Because of this association, ermine fur had been used in heraldry, as a trim on crowns and coronation cloaks, and on the garments of prelates of the Catholic Church for hundreds of years.
The ermine is the national symbol of Brittany, and the Breton flag has an ermine canton.
The weasel is associated with the destruction of clothing, especially that of brides-to-be, in Southern Greece. The Greek word for weasel is νυφίτσα, which translates to "little bride." Legend goes that the weasel was a bride transformed, and, being jealous of soon-to-be human brides, destroys their wedding dresses. A wedding custom dictates:
Therefore, in the house where these (wedding dresses) are collected, sweetmeats and honey are put out to appease her, known as 'the necessary spoonfuls,' and a song is sung with much ceremony in which the weasel is invited to partake and spare the wedding array.
In Macedonia, another folk tale posits that if a woman gets a headache after washing her hair with water drawn overnight, it was because a weasel used the water as a mirror. She should refrain from saying the name of the weasel aloud, or it will cause the household's clothing to decay.
An ermine was used as a symbol of moderation by Leonardo da Vinci in his painting Lady with an Ermine. In a bestiary he compiled he wrote:
MODERATION The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.
Ermines were used to symbolize pregnancy in Renaissance-era Italy.
England and Ireland
In Ireland, stoats were thought to behave like humans who had family structures and rituals for the dead. Seeing a stoat at the beginning of a journey was considered bad luck unless you greeted the animal as a neighbor.
In 17th century England, weasels were believed to be the familiars of witches.
The folklore of several tribes mentions weasels. They are variably depicted as heroes or tricksters, depending on the region. The Shoshone and Paiute describe the weasel as a trickster spirit, the Abenaki and Tlingit associated them with sorcery, while the Anishinaabe associated them with healing and used their pelts for medicine bags.
In popular culture
In 2015 a photograph of a least weasel 'riding' on a woodpecker's back went viral. As explained by wildlife experts, the weasel was attacking the woodpecker as prey.
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