Badgers: A Symbol of Death from our Past

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Should one hear a badger call,
And then an ullot (owl) cry,
Make thy peace with God, good soul,
For thou shall shortly die.

Badgers and Death:

The European badger (Meles meles) is a member of the mustelid or weasel family. It is native across large swathes of Europe and parts of the Middle East. Although not terribly large, it is quite a powerfully built mammal. I once glimpsed a badger lying down near to my house, thinking it dead I went over to it; but as I approached within two feet of this creature it blink its eyes open and after taking one look at me, it ran off – a mass of shoulder and muscle.

Until the 18th century, badgers used to be called a ‘brock’ in England or ‘bawson’, which means something that is striped with white. In Ireland they were called ‘earth dogs’ and in wales “mochyn daear” or ‘earth pigs’.

Among the folklore, there is a lot of association with death when it comes to this stocky weasel. Another poem states that if a badger passes behind you it will bring you good fortune, but if it passes in front then it will bring death upon you.

Should a badger cross the path
Which thou hast taken, then
Good luck is thine, so it be said
Beyond the luck of men.

But if it cross in front of thee,
Beyond where thou shalt tread,
And if by chance doth turn the mould,
Thou art numbered with the dead.

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A Badger’s Funeral:

Occasionally a badger’s network of tunnels or ‘sett’ may collapse, killing any individual that may be caught inside. When humans found these buried badgers it led to the belief that badgers themselves buried their dead and held ceremonial funerals for their lost. Despite this setts are actually fairly stable and a the same tunnels may be used for decades, by generations of badgers seeking the warmth and dryness that these places provide.

Why Death?

But why death? Beyond the fact that our ancestors of the past few centuries were riddled with superstition, causing us to question how they ever dared to leave their houses in the morning. Being nocturnal animals – perhaps their association with the night and the mystery that surrounds such ‘unseen’ animals of darkness could be the reason. The fact that they are underground for most of their lives would further add to this mystery, and leave more room for speculation and wild theories about their nature. In winter they disappear further, their body temperature lowers, their bodily functions slow, and they largely stay inside their setts to sleep when snow has fallen.

They are also fairly fearless, and their stark stripes act more to warn predators of their presence, as oppose to camouflage them. Their jaws are strong enough to crunch through bones.

But by far why I believe they are associated with death is the sound they make. Badgers have an array of calls – from a short sharp kekkering sound, to barking, to a piercing and terrifying scream. Once whilst camping out in the fields in England I heard a scream in the middle of the night that was enough to make my blood curdle. I only learnt later that it may have been a badger, or perhaps the mating call of the female fox: the vixen’s scream, rather than some axe-murderer let loose.

Shape-shifters In Irish Lore:

In Irish folklore there are stories whereby these animals are shape-shifters and loyal men to the king Tadg of Tara. The king is furious when his adopted son unknowingly kills and eats a badger. This idea gives badgers the same status as humans. In Japan there are also stories of badgers called the ‘Mujna’ that turn into people and sing songs.

Among the Germans:

German stories tell of the badger as a peaceful fellow, loving nothing more than his home, his family, and his creature comforts. One can’t help but draw similarities to these animals and hobbits living in their snug holes in the ground, with all the comforts of the Shire.

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Badgers in the Highlands:

Badgers were important to Scottish clans, where they were admired for their strength and prized for their attractive fur. Their teeth were once used as buttons on ceremonial dress in the Scottish Highlands. Their faces were also skinned and used on a part of the Scottish kilt called the ‘sporran’.

Humans and Badgers: Badger Baiting, Peasants, Cows & T.B.

Beyond folklore, the direct human relationship with badgers has often been tinged with death. They were once utilised for the blood sport of badger bating, and forced to fight dogs to the death. They were even eaten by some, such as the “peasants of Gloucestershire”. Even now they are the topic of controversial debate, whereby culls have been used to try and slow the spread of bovine tuberculosis between badgers, cows and humans through consumption of milk. Many environmental groups have advocated for a vaccine to be used instead, as well as better management of cows.

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