In the animal kingdom, there are many species that have symbolized death throughout various cultures and time periods. Bats, crows, rats, ravens, snakes, and vultures are all believed to be symbols of death.
These symbols can arise in various ways. It may be through the animals’ role in the decomposition process, their nocturnal habits, or something as simple as appearance. But they all represent death, in one way or another.
Death is one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, of man’s preoccupations. So it should be no surprise that we have created so many symbols of it in the world around us.
Keep in mind not all of these motifs are negative – death is as natural as life, and representations of death can simply be part of the cycle of life.
Remember that symbolism is subjective. The below are examples of possible interpretations only, and may not be the correct interpretations for you and your situation.
Animals that Symbolize Death
These flying mammals have long been associated with death, largely due to their nocturnalism, and their habit of dwelling in deep, pitch-black caves.
In some cultures, a bat in the house is seen as a harbinger of coming death in that household.
In mesoamerican culture and mythology, these animals were seen as creatures of the underworld, and thus inextricable from the concept of death.
Like the bat, blackbirds also have long associations with the underworld, in large part due to their dark, blackish wings.
It is often thought of as a messenger of death, and its appearance often symbolizes the coming of bad news, i.e death.
However, the ‘death’ that a blackbird heralds does not always have to be bad – it can also mean the symbolic death of negative life circumstances or some kind of struggle you may be experiencing.
Ancient Egyptians saw the blackbird as a symbol of the circle of life, meaning they represented both life and death.
Related: Symbolism of Black Feathers
3. Black Cats
Throughout European history, black cats have symbolized general bad omens.
Their appearance could mean anything from the presence of black magic to the more general omens of bad luck and death.
However, a black cat is more likely to represent evil overall, rather than death absolutely.
The appearance of butterflies can have many symbolic meanings, though they often change depending on the color of the butterfly.
Unsurprisingly, black butterflies are most often linked to death and are seen as a bad omen. In some cultures, they also symbolize death and rebirth.
Yellow butterflies are another type that has similar associations, those that will vary widely from culture to culture. It is sometimes seen as an omen of sickness and death.
Bulls can symbolize a myriad of things, particularly fire and earth, but in some cases, it is also seen as a symbol of death.
This is largely due to the use of the bull and bull’s blood as a religious sacrifice, particularly in ancient Rome. In India, Indonesia, and ancient Egypt, bulls also have an association with death.
These birds have long been considered a death omen in some cultures and religions.
Like most blackbirds, and carrion birds (birds that feast on dead flesh), they are seen as bad omens, and their appearance usually signals death.
In some folklore, the appearance of a crow could often mean the death of a hero or other significant figure.
Similar to blackbirds, crows can also symbolize metaphysical death – the end of an era or circumstance, and the beginning of something new.
Read More: Symbolism of Crows
Horses don’t always symbolize death, but they can in some situations.
One situation where a horse symbolizes death is when there are four horses together. In these instances, they point to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s believed that these horsemen will arrive at the end of times.
Another time is when a horse with a saddle is found alone without its rider. In film and literature, the presence of a horse without its rider is often an omen that the rider has passed on and no one was there to notice.
Moths have long represented death and other dark symbols in ancient cultures.
In Celtic mythology, it has always been associated with images of death and decay, specifically. In Celtic and Gaelic cultures a moth in the home, particularly a Death’s Head, was a sign of impending death in the family, and the moths were sometimes even thought to be the souls of deceased family members or friends.
They were also seen as symbols of death, the fear of death, or the threat/possibility of death and tragedy in ancient Egyptian culture. Native Americans also believe that moths are an important reminder for us of the relationship between life and death.
Like black cats, crows, and ravens, owls have a close association with dark magic, witches, and warlocks, which has always connected them to death and fear of death.
They have always had a direct association with death in Egyptian and Norse mythology.
In Native American culture, the owl symbolizes dual concepts of wisdom and death, and they are even considered to be companions in the afterlife, spurring on old wives’ tales of owls that could carry children away from the realm of the living.
One should be wary when a dead owl appears in dreams. This is believed to symbolize the impending death of the person dreaming, or of a loved one.
Rats have long been synonymous with plague and pestilence.
So, their symbolic connection to death is unavoidable (though it should be noted that this is most common in Western Judeo-Christian cultures, and many cultures actually uphold rats as more positive symbols).
In art and literature, rats are often used to depict death, disease, and decay.
In some cultures, when a rat is seen leaving a house it is believed to be a sign of coming death in that household.
Similar to the crow (which it is often confused for), the symbol of the Raven is closely linked to death due to its pitch-black feathers and feeding habits.
In western folklore, they had a particular association with death and war, as a raven’s caw was believed to predict either death or incoming battle. They were also the last living on a battlefield, feasting on the flesh of corpses – a symbol of the finality of death.
However, the raven doesn’t have to be an “evil” or negative symbol. As carrion birds, they do the necessary job of cleaning up after death.
Followers of the Hindu religion even take the favorite food of a recently deceased loved one and feed it to ravens to ascertain whether the deceased has found peace in the afterlife.
Roosters were traditionally a symbol of death in Mexican culture.
But they can also symbolize death in some situations in Western cultures as well. For example, if a rooster crows at night, it’s believed that it is heralding the fact that someone will die before the sun comes up.
Similarly, when a rooster doesn’t crow in the morning, it’s read as a sign that something has gone severely wrong.
Given their ability to destroy creatures that are far bigger than they are, it’s no surprise that these little arachnids are potent symbols of death, particularly in dreams.
In many cultures where scorpions are a very real and present threat, they have become symbols of lethal danger, disease, and impending doom.
In African cultures particularly it is seen as a symbol of great evil, but in other cultures, it can have more positive connotations as a totem or spirit animal. For example, in ancient Egypt, it represented the cycles of life and death – a sign of metaphysical transformation.
The spider is often seen as a symbol of death and other, darker themes – just think of how prevalent the image of the spider is during Halloween!
This can be attributed to the venomous/toxic quality of some spider species, their rather ominous appearance, and other physical features of the insect.
Their ability to feed on humankind, and to destroy mammals 100 times bigger than them, contributes to this symbolism. It may also be attributed to the eight legs of the spider – as some see the number eight as a direct symbol of life and death.
These reptiles are one of the most fearsome animals in the world, which may play a part in why the snake is seen as a symbol of death in many cultures.
They certainly strike the fear of death into the hearts of most that encounter them in the wild.
Though the snake brings images of death to the minds of many people regardless of culture, this relationship is particularly evident in the Hindu religion, as snakebite was one of the most common causes of death in India for centuries.
The totem of the snake can signify death and rebirth, ushering in a significant change in one’s life.
Read More: Symbolism of Snakes
Though it may be more graceful and beautiful than some of the other animals on this list, the delicate swan has indeed been considered a symbol of death in some cultures.
This is in part due to the “swan song” – it has long been believed that the bird can prophesize its own death, and sings a beautiful song the moment before its own passing.
In ancient Rome, the swan had the same connotation, albeit a more positive one. The swan was a positive messenger of death, and seeing one would signify an honorable or “good” death for the observer.
In most (but not all) cultures, the vulture is seen as an ominous and “unclean” animal, and a symbol or messenger of death and decay.
This is largely because, like the crow and raven, it is a carrion bird that feeds on corpses.
They are sometimes linked to the devil and are believed to be able to sense death. It is thought in many cultures that the presence of vultures is an omen of coming death in the household, or of a loved one.
One should be wary of the sudden appearance of vultures in dreams and waking life.
How to Interpret Spiritual Symbolism
Interpreting symbolism and spiritual meanings is subjective and deeply personal. The symbolic meanings listed in this article are examples of potential interpretations, but might not be true for your situation.
Make sure you meditate and journal about your vision. Reflect on what you saw and think about what message you think is relevant to you and your life right now.
This doesn’t mean choosing the message you want to hear, but the one you think you need to hear at this point in your life. Only you can decide which meaning is the right one for your situation.
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There are many animals that symbolize death in some respect, from the delicate butterfly to the scavenging vulture.
Most of these animals have gained these associations through either their color (black), their feeding habits, their instincts, and behavior, or their relationship to the night or darkness.
Hi! I’m Jessica and I’m a Gemini. My spirit animal is the mighty barn owl. It brings me wisdom when I need it most and guides me through the darkness. Thanks for reading this article!